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Innovative leaders set, enforce, but also nurture priorities

For decades the Russ family of Austria has run a successful newspaper and printing company. Their flagship publication was the dominant player in Western Austria, but in the 1990s Eugen Russ, the company’s managing director, saw the digital future coming.

He began visiting Silicon Valley and studying disruptive innovation theory. Russ realized he needed to act, and fast, to secure his company’s future. Small tweaks would not work.

Russ decided the only way for his company to survive was for it to change dramatically. He resolved to disrupt his own business by creating self-contained separate divisions that were free to pursue their own products and strategy, even if they undercut the existing business.

In an interview with the World Editors Forum, Russ said “we believe in the Innovators Dilemma described by Clay Christensen and Clark Gilbert. Even if print is still successful today and in the foreseeable time, we separated digital from print. And have never changed.”

Innovation can’t happen unless the leaders of an organization instigate change and experimentation, and create structures, a culture, and processes that encourage innovation to flourish.

Today Russ Media operates separate digital businesses in several European countries, along with its stable of magazines and newspapers. In Germany its Quoka.de website competes with eBay and Craigslist for the classifieds market. In Hungary it operates an online classifieds site, a wedding website, a gardening website, and a careers portal. In Romania, it has a women’s health portal, and a classifieds site for buyers and sellers of vehicles. In Austria, it runs a mobile-oriented news offering, along with telephony services. The aforementioned sites and services are just a sample of its properties.

Russ Media frequently launches new products, stops initiatives that aren’t working, and forms teams to attack new opportunities. Quoka.de used to have a print component, but the company ended it two years ago to focus solely on digital.

“The company, now a digital pure play, is growing fast and generating money and expertise for further investments in digital,” Russ said of Quoka.de.

Gerold Riedmann is CEO of Russ Media Digital, one of the independent divisions within the overall Russ Media organization. He said that he and the company’s other so-called mini-CEOs are able to make decisions and develop new businesses and products because the company’s top leader has given them the mandate to do so, and pushed them at every stage.

“The most central point for us over the last two decades has been that if your CEO of the whole company … is at the same time kind of the [chief innovation officer] and is the one pushing ideas, that’s what changes the whole game,” he said.

His point was echoed by everyone interviewed for this study: Innovation can’t happen unless the leaders of an organization instigate change and experimentation, and create structures, a culture, and processes that encourage innovation to flourish.

Michael Maness said this requires transformational leadership. That is a style of leadership which “engages employees by appealing to more intrinsic motivations such as autonomy, fulfillment, mastery, a sense of purpose, and a spirit of camaraderie at work,” according to Don Peppers, an author of management books and the founding partner of Peppers & Rogers Group, a management consulting firm.

Maness, the former vice president of journalism and media innovation for the Knight Foundation, said this form of leadership is in short supply, particularly at traditional news organizations.

“One of the things that I’ve seen in my [media] career, and also see at Knight in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, is really a need for, and understanding of, transformational leadership,” said Maness. “What I mean by that is leadership that is willing to enable change, to take risks, to learn from failures, to be better at project management, and understanding it takes a lot of iteration before things stabilize.”

One of the most difficult but important elements of change, Maness emphasized, is deciding what things to stop doing. Transformational leaders often set the tone by deciding what not to do, and then enforcing that.

“The reason that’s important is that unless you stop doing those things [that aren’t core to your operation], you don’t have the time and space you need to try out new things and fail and figure out where to go next,” Maness said. “I make the example of when I was working in local newspapers where we would publish eight pages of stocks. It made sense in some ways because there weren’t any real-time things at the time. But as soon there’s real-time stock quotes, it still took us years to stop publishing the stock pages.”

Transformational leadership … is willing to enable change, to take risks, to learn from failures, to be better at project management, and understanding it takes a lot of iteration before things stabilize.

Research about organizational change and innovation emphasizes the importance of leaders setting the tone and modeling behavior, according to Carrie Brown, co-author of “The Lean Newsroom.” In addition to researching innovation in newsrooms she has begun to lead a new social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

“Over and over again what all the literature says, and what you tend to find, is that management plays this super-key role in getting buy-in,” Brown said in an interview.

Change, in other words, cannot successfully be mandated from above. It also must be taught and supported.

As Brown put it:

The most successful leaders are usually ones balancing between pushing people to change but also, through providing training and support, are also managing some of the anxiety that comes up around that.

It’s kind of about threading the needle so that people are stressed out enough they stop doing the things they’ve been doing all the time, but yet not so stressed that they’re so paralyzed they can’t do anything at all.

Another obstacle to change, on the other hand, can be lack of buy-in from above, according to Kimberly Lau, the vice president and general manager of the Atlantic Digital. When that support is missing, it restricts resources and saps energy.

“It starts with expectations and permission to do things, and that ultimately comes from the top,” she said in a presentation about innovation at a Collab/Space event in New York.

Lau gave an example. She said one of her goals in 2013 was to do more testing and optimization of Atlantic Digital products. This for example could mean changing the placement of social media sharing buttons on a mobile article page, and testing whether that altered user behavior. Her team kicked off a three-month test period with an optimization platform but only managed to get two tests done, one of which proved inconclusive. They had to abandon the initiative.

Later, an outside consultant was brought in by Atlantic Media owner David Bradley, and this person strongly advocated for optimization and testing. Suddenly Lau’s boss and Bradley were pushing for this to get done.

“We were able to get those things rolling and we’re well on our way,” she said. “A lot of the time you think you can … do things in the dark and you’ll be fine. My team was on board, but we didn’t have the rest of the organization on board and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Whether the issue is lack of buy-in to make change or the opposite, impatience that change happens sooner, Amy Webb of Webbmedia Group said the “single most difficult challenge to overcome for news organizations is managing that process of innovation at the top.”

For leaders, that means setting priorities and creating a structure that enables those priorities to be executed. That may mean stopping some activities and initiatives, but it also means giving life and license to new processes, initiatives, and structures.

Leaders set and communicate priorities

Knowing what to do and what not to do flows from having a clear mission expressed through key priorities. Leadership must define the core mission of the organization, and identify areas where the business will focus its efforts and resources.

“At the strategic level, leaders and managers identify the overall mission and long-term vision of the organization, evaluate their organization’s competencies, and consider how to position for the future,” wrote Brown and Groves in their paper.

At Russ Media, top managers do a deep dive on priorities and current projects twice a year. During that meeting, they agree on 10 principles that focus their efforts and attention for the next six months.

Riedmann said a current principle is that “mobile traffic will [surpass] the desktop traffic.” They also agreed on what will happen with print revenue and circulation, and on key digital trends that will shape the work they do, and don’t do.

“We have kind of crash barriers on the left and on the right for everyone doing decisions,” he said. “And [so for example] even the groups not so hard hit by some mobile things know the cliff is coming.”

He said the idea is to “empower people to make the decisions that would seem appropriate for board members.”

Trei Brundrett, the chief product officer of Vox Media, said top management at his company set and adapt priorities at a bi-weekly priorities meeting.

“We bring everything into a priorities meeting every other week so that we’re constantly looking at and adjusting it and tweaking it, and making sure we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

Brundrett highlights an element that Brown and Groves emphasize in their paper: things will change, and so management and priorities need to adapt and iterate. The authors caution against “an unwavering and sometimes uncritical commitment to the chosen strategy because of the past investment of time and resources in the visioning process.”

Other sections of this study emphasize the importance of an iterative, adaptive process in developing new ideas and products. However, this approach must also fundamentally become part of the culture and processes of an organization, according to Brown and Groves.

As priorities are set and adjusted, they must be constantly communicated to the entire organization. At Vox, those priorities enable smaller groups and teams to guide their daily work.

“What we’ve done a pretty good job of is having a clearly communicated strategic direction and problems to solve — jobs to do,” Brundrett said. “Then we enable our teams to organize around those ideas and kind of figure out how we’re going to approach those things.”

Brundrett holds a monthly meeting for his product team, which currently has over 60 members. If something new or significant is changing in terms of priorities or the company, he invites CEO Jim Bankoff to take part.

“I make sure my team understands not just what we’re are doing, but why we’re doing it,” he said. “The other thing we do kind of in parallel is we’ll organize demos and presentations of projects happening around a [specific priority]. So everybody has a working knowledge of, ‘Hey this is where we’re headed and here is actually how we’re acting on [priorities].’ So they can get their heads around what it means to act on it.”

Mark Tomasik is ready to list his organization’s priorities a moment’s notice. Tomasik is editor of Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and TCPalm.com. He said there are four key areas of focus for his and other Scripps newsrooms:

  1. Real-time reporting
  2. Social media audience engagement
  3. “Franchise issues,” which are topics such as local entertainment or smart development
  4. Investigative reporting

The above priorities were set in part as a result of consumer research commissioned by the company, according to Tomasik.

“We really come in every day saying that’s what we’re focused on,” he said. “Everything else — I mean everything else is secondary and way down the line. Yes things do come up and people can make the case. But it’s a great rudder for us to stay on course.”

He continued: “One of the keys to what we’ve been able to achieve is just relentless prioritization, and that means that everyone in the newsroom understands what we’re trying to achieve, and [it means] having the guts and discipline to stick to it.”

Tomasik said another lesson he’s learned from trying to get his previously print-focused newsroom to think and act digitally is that he has to constantly communicate the priorities.

“The keys to any change environment is to have a clear philosophy and then communicate that philosophy over and over again to the point where you’ve said it so much that you can’t even stand to hear it again,” he said. “It takes that kind of repetition to sink in.”

The other point he emphasized was that setting a strategy and priorities means “you have to give something up.”

This is true for every organization: you must do some things and not do others. Then you have to get everyone moving in the same direction with those priorities in mind.

Leaders model and change behavior

Maness said leaders must do more than talk about change and innovation: they have to model behavior. They can, for example, demonstrate their engagement in the way they run meetings.

“Every morning in the morning meeting whoever is running it says, ‘What did our social look like yesterday? What was hot? What did we do? What did we learn from the audience that we should be paying attention to?’ That makes a huge difference,” Maness said. “I know the unfamiliarity of this stuff makes people uncomfortable, especially with seasoned news operations. You’ve got to be okay with not knowing it and you got to be okay with putting somebody up there that does and giving them space.”

Sherry Chisenhall, the editor and senior vice president of news of the Wichita Eagle, said it’s important for her to learn new skills as a way of demonstrating that it matters.

“I think it would be really bad if I didn’t know how to go in and fix a typo on the website,” she said. “If you don’t have a Twitter account it sends the message [to staff] that it is important for you to do it, but not to me.”

She encourages leaders to step up and admit what they don’t know, and to ask questions even if they feel it will make them look stupid.

“Ask about something because chances are somebody near you doesn’t know how to do it either,” she said.

Chisenhall offered advice for managers in traditional newsrooms for how to work with people at different stages of transformation.

Her experience is that a third of the newsroom will be out front and adapting quickly. The next roughly third of people are those who “are not against you, but are not sure where to go and how to do it.” The final group is hostile to, or at the least very skeptical of, change.

Chisenhall said in the past her tendency was to focus more effort on the bottom group. She now does the opposite.

“The people who are way out front and who have already adapted, you just need to move a hurdle out of the way now and then and give encouragement,” she said. “The turning point was to say: ‘Let’s help these people first.’ Then others see people in the newsroom doing cool things and picking up great stories off social networks.”

“It’s really reversing where you spend the bulk of your time, and about encouraging and investing in that top tier of people — investing in folks that are more than ready to do what they need to do,” she said.

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